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At NIH, Schaffer says student contributors to grant applications often use too much jargon. He recommends defining all technical terms, explaining the theoretical viewpoint and having third parties — especially if they've served on a review panel — read and critique the application in advance. He cautions, "An application can go down in flames in the first paragraph these days. [It] better be close to perfect when you send it in."

Breckler agrees: "A grant application must be an extremely well-written document, prepared with all the care and attention to detail that one would put into a dissertation." No matter what an author's experience, every proposal must be clear, complete, persuasive and address important goals.

Although the elements of a winning proposal haven't changed much over time, the application technology has. By the end of 2007, the National Institutes of Health is making the transition from paper to electronic applications via a form called the SF424 (R&R). An online flow chart gives you a feel for the system, which helps you download an application package, upload the completed proposal, and track its journey through the review process. Applications to NSF can go through the grants.gov or FastLane, the NSF electronic portal for proposals.

Write On

NIH Web sites offer writing guides that coach you on how to sharpen your hypothesis, appeal to the primary reviewer, master intricate formatting requirements and more. The APA also offers online guidance on the basics of grant writing (don't be tempted to gloss over small points; do consult grant project officers before submitting your application). Also see NIH's writing tips for new investigators.